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In these days of gridlocked towns, inadequate motorways, appalling rail services and chaotic airports it's good to be reminded that getting from one place to another has never been easy.
You remember the old saying "My postillion has been struck by lightning"? Its origins are shrouded in mystery, but it may well have come from a phrase-book called "Traveller's Manual for French Persons in Germany and German Persons in France" published in 1799 by Madame de Genlis, otherwise known as Caroline-Stéphanie-Félicité du Crest de Saint-Aubin. She was an accomplished seamstress, surgeon, horse rider, harpist and billiards player. She wrote "resolutely inaccurate" historical novels and was the governess of the future King Louis-Philippe of France.
Plainly she knew well the perils that awaited the innocent traveller on the roads of France at the turn of the 19th Century. Her useful phrases include …
• Listen, postillion, if you drive at a good speed when the road is good and slowly on corners and bridges or in towns and villages, then I shall give you a good tip.
• Can one place a harp in its carrying case on the luggage rack?
• Your carriage is heavy and overloaded.
• This horse is worthless. It is restive. It is skittish. I am decidedly loth to take it. Please give me a different one.
• What kind of road is it? It is strewn with rocks. One must avoid passing through forests at dusk or at night.
• Coachman or postillion, stop. I wish to alight before boarding the ferry. I wish to alight, I tell you, and to board the ferry on foot.
• How shall we be fed? Quite badly. I advise you to take with you some private provisions. This is especially necessary for old people, women and children.
• Bring us some sheets. Some nice, white sheets. I warn you that I shall examine them very carefully.
• There is a very bad smell in here.
• I am suffering greatly. I am going to vomit. Give me the vase.
• Are we nearly there yet?

Are we nearly there yet?

• Postillion, a man has just climbed onto the back of the coach.
• Postillion, stop, the brakes must be attached.
• I believe the wheels are on fire. Look and see.
• The kingpin has fallen out.
• The suspension has snapped.
• The coach has overturned.
• The horse is badly wounded. It is dead.
• Gently remove the postillion from beneath the horse.


The GOS says: I found these gems in a wonderful book by Graham Robb, The Discovery of France.
Did you know that in 1886 more people lived in Paris than in the next sixteen biggest cities put together, yet it covered an area of only 13 square miles, barely twice the size of Eurodisney? That in the 18th Century parts of France were so far off the beaten track that in Estables (Haute-Loire) villagers hacked to death a young map-maker because they thought he was a sorcerer who had come to blight their crops?
That at the time of the French Revolution the French language was spoken by only 11% of the population, and that by 1880 the number of people who felt comfortable speaking French was still only 8 million - about one in five Frenchmen? That one village in the Pyrenees had a language that consisted entirely of whistling, and was still in use as late as World War 2 to help Jewish refugees and stranded Allied pilots cross the mountains into Spain?
That in remote mountain areas the peasants adopted a form of hibernation, walling themselves up in their houses, eating very little and, it is believed, actually slowing their metabolism until the good weather came again? That in one mountain village a little girl wandered away from her friends in the forest and reappeared eight years later, speechless but apparently healthy?
Academic Robb has spent years cycling round France on tracks and byways, and writes fluently and compellingly. I have found this book completely fascinating, and can't recommend it enough.
Not very grumpy. Sorry.


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